Sir Alex Ferguson has once again challenged his players to match Barcelona, with Manchester United facing the European champions in Washington on Saturday night. Just 63 days after the humiliating defeat by the Catalans at Wembley the question, with six senior players having left the club and no new central midfielder on the horizon, is how?
This, of course, is no trivial matter. The destruction by Pep Guardiola’s side in London was so comprehensive that Michael Carrick’s head is probably still spinning. While Barça is so good that few successfully compete, United’s total capitulation in midfield on 28 May served only to highlight the glaring weakness in Ferguson’s squad.
That Ferguson can no longer call on Paul Scholes, Owen Hargreaves nor – in all likelihood – Darron Gibson in the coming season has also reduced the Scot’s options in midfield. The quality hardly ran deep to start.
In the aftermath of Wembley defeat Ferguson challenged his players to reach Barça’s level; it’s a theme that United’s 69-year-old coach returned to ahead of Saturday’s game in the Capital.
“In everyone’s mind they are the best team, currently, in the world,” admitted Ferguson, without hint of irony.
“I’m quite happy to be in second place at this moment in time because that’s our challenge. Our challenge will be to get to that level.”
Yet, Ferguson’s summer activity to date has largely been aimed at maintaining the status quo. Long-term evolution rather than a quantum leap in quality has been the theme. Hardly a portent to challenge Barcelona as Europe’s finest in the coming campaign. In any case, many observers feel that United over-achieved on the continent last season.
David de Gea will replace Edwin van der Sar in the medium term, although Ferguson has offered Anders Lindegard the chance to impress during the pre-season US tour. Whichever way the goalkeeping decision goes it is certainly not yet an upgrade.
Meanwhile, room for Phil Jones has been made by the transfer of Wes Brown and John O’Shea to Sunderland. Jones is flexible and talented but completely inexperienced at European leave. Then there is Ashley Young, who will at least offer a versatile alternative to the failed experiment with Gabriel Obertan and Bébé, although few count the former Aston Villa winger in Barça’s class.
There is little doubt Ferguson recognises the problem at the heart of his midfield though. This despite protestations to the contrary in recent days. After all, why else would he instruct chief executive to pursue the aforementioned midfield trio this summer? Yet, David Gill insists deals for Sneijder, Modric and Nasri are now “dead.” United seemingly lack the financial muscle to force Inter’s hand over the Dutchman, Nasri will probably join Manchester City next summer, and Tottenham Hotspur remains intransigent over Modric, who has expressed a desire to join Chelsea in any case.
“We didn’t progress that one [Sneijder]. I’m not doing anything on anything at the moment, so they are all dead,” said Gill on Friday.
“The important point is that you never know. I’ve been around in football long enough to know things change quickly. Somebody may become available and we can then say we are interested.
“We have been clear all along. There is money in the bank. Some people have not believed us but if a player is required to improve the squad and challenge for top honours, the money is there. That is still the case. We are not afraid to spend big money on players of a certain age.”
Whether Gill’s comments are yet another in a long-line of spin from the executive will only be confirmed on 31 August. Yet, Gill’s key line – “of a certain age” – might well be confirmation that United’s transfer policy of buying young with a view to re-sale value is still in place. Informally United will not spend large fees on players over 26.
With Sneijder now 27, a total financial commitment of more than £80 million required to prize the Dutchman away from Inter and pay the midfielder’s wages, and little re-sale possible, it is inconceivable that United will deal unless Blaunegra substantially reduces its financial requirements to nearer £20 million than £35 million.
The impasse leaves the Reds to look for an alternative or – far more likely – Gill may Ferguson to begin the season with Anderson, Carrick, Ryan Giggs and Darren Fletcher as the senior central midfielders at the club. Each has their significant limitations.
This is to say nothing of the club’s desperate need for a defensive midfielder with Hargreaves now cast into football’s wilderness.
What then of the stated goal to match Barcelona? Based on a hope and a prayer, critics might add. Perhaps Anderson ‘will come good’ after four years of inconsistency. Maybe, Fletcher will regain confidence after a debilitating illness. Potentially Carrick will step up a level despite history telling us otherwise. Hope, as a wise observer once noted, is no kind of strategy.
That Barça can boast such riches in attack and yet add both the outstanding Alexis Sanches and in all probability Cesc Fabregas too has if anything taken Guardiola’s side further away from United this summer.
United may well emerge victorious as FedEx Field tonight. Ferguson side is, after all, three weeks ahead of its opponents in pre-season preparation, with Barça not beginning the La Liga campaign until late August. Without central midfield reinforcements few will expect a repeat come the Champions League final next May.